Lean Cuisine Frozen Meals

I sampled dozens of packaged meals during my two years of teaching, as they were my (and many others') go-to choice for lunch at school. Back then, my meal-planning efforts were miniscule, so I didn't often have lunch-ready leftovers or sandwich supplies.

True, I could have picked up a government-approved meal from the school cafeteria. However, I'd like to see government officials subsist on mush-meat burritos (cooked and served in their plastic bags) served with iceberg lettuce piles and cupcakes the way my low-income students had to! Aiming to avoid the styrofoam surprise, I kept my fridge and freezer stocked with heat-and-eat platters.

In the course of this series, I'm going to recommend several packaged meals based on their flavor and reasonable calorie counts, but I have to warn anyone interested in picking these up that none will keep you full and satisfied the way a home-cooked meal would. They might be briefly satisfying, but I invariably ended up ravenous by the time I left school. Packaged meals aim to please American palates, which love fat, salt, and protein. If "diet" meals were largely vegetable-based, they could offer truly satisfying portions for few calories, but let's be honest: No one outside of the Whole Foods crowd would buy them.

Since between-meals hunger can lead to serious junk-food binges or poor dinner choices (all those drive-thrus on the commute!), it's best to either supplement or pack a healthy, filling snack to consume a few hours later. Think ready-to-go, high-fiber fruit such as apples or bananas; protein-rich snacks such as string cheese or nuts; or even low-cal meal-replacement bars. Alternatively, a big, vegetables-only salad, whether home chopped or store prepared, can fill out your meal for few calories.

Lean Cuisine

Lean Cuisine is likely the first brand that pops to mind when anyone thinks of low-cal frozen meals. Stouffer's packs these meals with delicious flavors unusual for the freezer case. They're innovators in the field, introducing choices most people wouldn't expect to find in the freezer case, such as crunchy panini sandwiches and chewy flatbreads.

Lean Cuisine's offerings seem endless based on their web site. No wonder they take over such a large chunk of the supermarket freezer. On the downside, most of the meals are paltry in size and lack a significant amount of vegetables. Don't expect a huge emphasis on whole grains, either.

On to the best of the bunch!

From LeanCuisine.comAsian-Style Pot Stickers
How fun is it to get to eat something that looks like naughty Chinese take-out and yet know that it has minimal waist impact? The sauce gives the cute (and generously sized) dumplings a lip-smacking Asian-food flavor, all for only 260 calories a box. The rice accompaniment isn't a showstopper, but stir-fry some frozen veggies to add on top and it's like you're getting an appetizer and an entrée, making it a full dinner. These pot stickers are part of the "One-Dish Favorites" line, as is the similar Vegetable Eggroll meal. That one, though, comes with only one eggroll and thus seems eminently less satisfying.

From LeanCuisine.comSesame Chicken
Sesame Chicken is my all-time favorite Lean Cuisine frozen meal. I stocked up on it whenever it went on sale, and it was one of the few frozen meals I actually craved enough to eat for dinner. I always guiltily wished they would make a bigger-sized portion (like those skillet-meal bags) so I could have more of those fried nuggets. Mostly I liked this meal because of its resemblance to a takeout favorite, sweet and sour chicken. Sure, Lean Cuisine offers another meal dubbed Sweet and Sour Chicken, but it features roasted meat rather than fried. It's just not the same. The noodles on the side are OK -- nothing special -- but don't expect the big pile in the box picture. Sesame Chicken belongs to the "Café Classics" line and contains 330 calories.

From LeanCuisine.comLemongrass Chicken
The "Spa Cuisine" line features the meals that taste the most like "real" food, as in something you might prepare yourself or get at a decent restaurant. This Lemongrass Chicken wins you over not with assertive flavors or mouthwatering saltiness but with a subtle yet distinctive taste. How can I describe it? It's if they actually cooked up this one to nourish you rather than to addict you. The sauce featured on the chicken is delectable, and there's even some whole grains and vegetables involved. The meal weighs in at a spa-worthy 250 calories.

From LeanCuisine.comChicken Club
I felt like I must be doing something wrong biting into a crispy sandwich stuffed with melty cheese, ranch dressing, and bacon. Yet this sandwich only sets you back 320 calories, which is a perfectly reasonable lunch, with ample room for a piece of fruit alongside. It somehow feels extra satisfying as a lunch, too, being a traditional sandwich. You might be able to save some calories by discarding the bread topper and eating this open-faced -- the frozen and microwave-"grilled" bread isn't much to write home about. Those pictured grill marks added before the sandwich leaves the factory; the little silver microwaving tray in the box does not produce them.

Lean Cuisine may dominate the freezer case, but it's not the only brand in town. Later, we'll discuss meals offered by Weight Watchers, Healthy Choice, and other weight loss-oriented brands.

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